Returning to a crystal ball that didn’t work so well in 2012


DETROIT — Imagine if my crystal ball had predicted a year ago that Michigan native son Mitt Romney would win the GOP presidential nomination easily — but lose to President Obama in an Electoral College landslide.

In Michigan, the result would be even more one-sided than nationally. The President would beat Mr. Romney even in the affluent county where the former governor’s son grew up.

At the same time, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow would win by nearly a million votes over a former congressman who was expected to be a tough opponent. Democrats would gain legislative seats as well.

But mere weeks after the election, Republicans would shove through a new law making Michigan a right-to-work state — a law supposed moderate Gov. Rick Snyder happily signed.

My guess is that if I had predicted these things, I might have been sent to the columnists’ toxicology clinic.

Nevertheless, all that happened — and I haven’t yet mentioned U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter. He resigned his seat representing Michigan’s 11th U.S. House District, ran for president, failed, and then hid in his garage feverishly writing a pilot for an off-color TV sitcom starring himself. It didn’t sell.

Meanwhile, his staffers tried to get him on the ballot by illegally filing photocopies of old signatures instead of legitimate petitions. He was knocked off the ballot, and two of his assistants are awaiting sentencing.

The voters in his suburban Detroit district chose as their next congressman a reindeer trainer, former teacher, and extreme GOP Tea Party figure who once said in a legal deposition that he had “a problem figuring out which one I am, Kerry Bentivolio or Santa Claus … I prefer to be Santa Claus.”

Yes, all that really happened in Michigan in 2012.

So what can we expect for an encore in the new year?

For at least the first few months of 2013, the focus is bound to be on Detroit. The city may soon run out of cash it needs to pay its daily bills. The consent agreement designed to avoid the naming of an emergency financial manager hasn’t worked.

Mayor Dave Bing and the City Council are barely on speaking terms. Many council members seem determined to reject any offer of aid, no matter how beneficial, if it comes from “outsiders.”

Exasperated, the governor this month named a team, including state Treasurer Andy Dillon, to conduct a 60-day review of the city’s finances. That process is expected to end with the appointment of an emergency manager, possibly in February.

However, a law giving emergency managers tougher powers doesn’t take effect until late March. An earlier law was repealed by voters in November. Will Governor Snyder wait until then to appoint an emergency financial manager for Detroit? Can he afford to?

There also will be elections for Detroit city officials in 2013. While voters will choose a new city council, the real question is who the next mayor will be.

Mayor Bing has won high marks for restoring honesty and dignity to the office after the disgraceful Kwame Kilpatrick years. But in recent months he has seemed tired, disengaged, and ineffectual. He hasn’t indicated whether he plans to run for re-election,

Mike Duggan, a former Wayne County prosecutor and head of the Detroit Medical Center, has moved into the city, and clearly plans to run. But it is hard to imagine that a white machine politician from suburban Livonia could attract the votes of an electorate that is overwhelmingly poor and black.

Benny Napoleon, the current Wayne County sheriff and a former Detroit police chief, may have the best shot.

The real question, however, may be whether being mayor of Detroit will mean anything on Jan. 1, 2014. If an emergency manager is in power then, the mayor and council members will be little more than figureheads, with no influence over spending decisions.

Though the future of Detroit is likely to loom largest, Michigan will grapple with another major issue in 2013: right to work. That law doesn’t kick in until the end of March, and its effects are likely to be gradual.

In the meantime, will unions and the Democratic Party try to repeal the law?

After Governor Snyder signed right-to-work into law Dec. 11, longtime U.S. Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak said: “The effort to reverse this wrongheaded action … begins today.” Stirring words, but will there be any kind of organized effort?

Lawmakers included some money in the bill, which prevents voters from trying to repeal it. Under Michigan law, any bill that includes an appropriation cannot be overturned by referendum.

But opponents could collect signatures to ask lawmakers to repeal right-to-work, a maneuver known as a citizen’s initiative.

If they collect enough valid signatures — about 258,000 — the Legislature would have to repeal the law or place it on the November, 2014, general election ballot.

Unless the law is repealed, union membership is bound to shrink. With fewer dues-paying members, unions are bound to have less money available for political contributions.

Republicans, who seldom get any of that money, were well aware of this when they passed the right-to-work legislation.

There will be a boatload of other issues as well. For instance: Will changes in Michigan’s personal property tax on industrial property begin to stimulate growth, or will they leave already cash-strapped local governments with even less money?

A year from now, we may know whether the impact of Governor Snyder‘s reforms mean he will be a favorite for re-election in 2014 or a likely candidate for retirement — voluntary or otherwise.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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